Sunday, February 05, 2006

More on New Urbanism

Continuing on last week's theme of mixed-use pedestrian districts is this "big picture" article on New Urbanism in America. It focuses on Atlantic Station in Atlanta, but also covers bigger trends and some other developments, such as The Woodlands:
Some of these developments have been highly successful. For instance, The Woodlands, situated to the north of Houston, is a master-planned community on 280,000 acres, with a man-made canal, along which there are homes, office buildings, a Marriott (MAR) hotel, an outdoor theater, and the town library. The single-family detached homes have been selling for $350,000. Condos right in the city center, initially priced at around $250,000, are now selling for $400,000. "Even the Marriott on the Waterway is one of the highest-occupancy hotels in Houston," says D'Alesandro of General Growth, the lead developer of the project.
It also covers some of the risks and downsides:

Despite some success stories, it isn't necessarily a proven model. Given the huge expenditures, some developers may not recoup their investment. It's still early, and many of these townships are under construction. "It's certainly not for the faint of heart. It's not like rents are going up in proportion of construction costs, which are rising at 20% per year, along with land costs," says McEwen of Poag & McEwen. Access to lending is also tough. Historically, banks have developed expertise in only one of the disciplines and are reluctant to branch out.

In addition, once the buildings and city blocks are built, developers have found that not all of their renters get along. Residential, retail, and office users compete for parking. Retailers complain about support columns that are essential in a multistory building, but interfere with their open-store formats. Loft residents complain about noise from delivery trucks for restaurants and grocery stores.

What's more disconcerting is that these towns give the impression of having less character, with an eerie sense of monotony, as the same pattern of storefronts, townhomes, and condos multiply across America. In a sense, their uniformity mirrors the very suburbs they escape.

Consider Seaside, one of the first towns using principles of the new urbanism: Built in Florida two decades ago, Seaside was ridiculed for its perfection in the satirical movie The Truman Show. General Growth's D'Allesandro counters that many of the towns stick to historical architectural styles of the area -- Mission style in California, for example, or Classic European brick in New England.

The New Urbanism paradox: new and novel, yet monotonous and conservative at the same time.


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